Po Chü–i Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Po Chü–i 772–846

(Also known as Pai Chü-i) Chinese poet and political writer.

One of the most prolific of the T'ang poets, Po Chü-i was among the most popular and widely read writers of his time. Po devoted most of his life to political service, and his work profoundly influenced the course of Eastern literature—particularly in China and Japan—reconfiguring the relationship between a government and its people.

Biographical Information

Po Chü-i was born in Hsincheng, Honan Province, in 772. His father and grandfather were minor bureaucrats in the local government, and Po was raised in relative poverty and an unstable political climate. Rebellion continued for almost thirty years after the uprisings led by An Lu-shan and Shih Ssu-ming in 756, and the empire's lands and revenues had significantly decreased. The taxation necessary to sustain China's armies—which often pillaged the towns of its own countrymen—put a burden on Po's family that he would remember throughout his life; from personal experience he developed an acute understanding of China's social problems. When Po's father died in 794, it precluded the possibility that Po would study for the provincial exams to gain government service, and he began to wander Hupeh, Kiangsu, and Chekiang looking for work. Although his faith in government was faltering, he studied independently and passed the difficult examinations for Advanced Scholar in 800.

Po and the other members of his class became good friends and formed an intellectual force in the court of Emperor Te-tsung. Although the group faced resistance by other political factions, Po was named Imperial Library Collator. When Te-tsung died in 805, followed shortly by his son Shun-tsung, Hsien-tsung came to the throne and appointed Po clerical supervisor at Chou-chih District. Po became a renowned advisor in the region, so much so that Emperor Hsientsung named him an official critic of his court in 808. The emperor was open to scholarly criticism of his administrative policies, and Po composed written and oral remonstrations that secured the emperor's respect and trust.

Po's mother and daughter died in 811, and after a period of mourning, Po was assigned to be advisor to the Crown Prince. In that position, however, he was too outspoken on political matters and was shortly demoted to marshal in Chiang-chou, where his duties were minimal. There he read the poetry of T'ao Yüanming, Hsieh Ling-yün, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wei Yingwu, and he composed poems and conversed with Zen monks in the local monastery. His poetic treatment of the troop rebellion in the Huai River area garnered him many friends and supporters, and he became governor of Chung-chou in 818.

After Hsien-tsung's death in 820, Po returned to Ch'ang-an, where he once again became a court official, this time for Emperor Mu-tsung. Mu-tsung was not as open to Po's criticism as his predecessor had been, and Po was soon transferred from the capital. Declining health made him eager to retire, but the death of Mu-tsung in 824 and the instatement in 826 of Wen-tsung, who was sympathetic to the positions of Po and his colleagues, brought Po to Ch'ang-an to head the Palace Library. There he continued his study of the poetry of his forefathers. Further health problems forced him to take a parttime post with the Crown Prince in Loyang, where he stayed until retiring from public life in 842. Po died in 846 and was buried, by his request, at a Buddhist settlement by the Lung-men Mountains of Loyang.

Major Works

In 815, Po Chü-i wrote in a letter to his friend Yüan Chen that poetry should serve the state and society; an acute understanding of the plight of the poor inform many of the 3,840 pieces in his Collected Works and has earned Po the appellation "The People's Poet." Some of his more widely read poems, written in the New Music Bureau Style, attempted to restore Confucianism in order to strengthen the moral fabric of the society and insure a better life for the poor. Others, such as "The Imperial Collector of Poetry," encourage his emperor to be attentive to the needs of the people. But the didacticism of Po's poetry should not be overstated; his lyrical prowess in such frequently anthologized poems as "Lament Everlasting" and "Lute Song" and his many songs in praise of drinking, friendship, and nature contributed just as significantly to his renown.

Critical Reception

Unlike the poetry of Li Po and Tu Fu, a large part of whose work has been lost, more than 2,800 of Po Chü-i's poems have survived, mostly because of the meticulous work of Po himself to preserve them. Although he produced a number of short collections of songs, such as the ten Songs of Chin and, in 810, fifty New Songs, his full book did not appear until 824, when Yüan Chen edited a fifty-chapter collection called Ch'ang Ch'ing Chi. Po followed by editing two more collections, of twenty and five chapters, respectively. He later collected all three of these works, along with seventeen chapters exchanged between Po and Yüan, five chapters exchanged with Liu Yü-hsi, and ten chapters about Po's experiences in Lo-yang, into his Collected Works of 845. Po considered the Collected Works to be definitive and complete. Copies were given to five Chinese temples, where they were copied and transmitted throughout the Eastern world, especially in China, Japan, and Korea. Contemporary scholars generally rely on the so-called Naba and Ma texts copied by Japanese scholars Naba Doen in 1618 and Ma Yüan-tiao in 1604; unfortunately, the sources on which these texts were based remain unknown.

Critical Reception

Po was a popular poet and politician in China, and his poetry was eagerly sought and translated by Japanese and Korean travelers to T'ang China. In the preface to Ch'ang Ch'ing Chi, Yüan Chen writes, "Po's poems were found on the walls of palace buildings, monasteries, temples, and post stations; they were frequently on the lips of cow-herds and grooms as well as the nobles and womenfolk." Critics find in Po Chü-i a poet whose relevance to his contemporaries cannot be overestimated and whose mark has been indelibly left on Eastern literature. Several recent essays and books written in Chinese, Japanese, and English discuss his poems, prose writings, political career, and life, as well as his influence on Chinese and Japanese literature.